The locums lifestyle offers variety, flexibility, travel, adventure, and some interesting challenges! Providers who accept assignments to remote locations for WMS are well-aware of this, and many have developed highly refined strategies for creative packing and resource management in the field.
For providers new to WMS, or for those who haven’t yet experienced some of the more remote locations where we staff, we thought it would be helpful to delve into the most basic of questions after a long day at work: “What’s for dinner?”
We’re going beyond dinner, though. You’ll be thinking of food long before that question comes up, so we’ll start at the beginning by telling you many of the things we’ve learned about preparing food for your rural locum tenens assignment!
(Please note that this article will be especially helpful for now WMS providers who are going on assignment. However, if you’re new to locum tenens or even if you’re working with a different staffing agency that staffs in rural locations in the United States, this article should give you some good advice, so you’re prepared.)
Position Descriptions: What to Expect Before Arrival
At Wilderness Medical Staffing, for each assignment, the contracted provider will receive a “position description.” This document outlines many of the details of the assignment, including information about what to expect before you arrive.
If you’ve accepted an assignment in one of the smaller communities WMS supports, you’ve already seen a position description and may have some sense of what you’ll find when you arrive.
Understand the Food Situation at the Location
Some rural and remote communities have a range of grocery stores and restaurants, and food options won’t be a challenge to navigate. Other locations will have very limited choices for buying groceries, possibly few-to-no restaurants, and food may be quite expensive. (This is especially true in Alaska bush communities where all provisions must be flown in from a larger hub.)
The first thing to determine, well before you travel, is exactly what the food situation will be, and how you should prepare for it. This is particularly important if you’re going to be working in this location for an extended time. You can discuss this with your account executive or ask to talk with another provider who’s recently worked in that location.
Alaska isn’t the only state with small communities and limited food-buying or restaurant options. Rural communities in the other states where WMS staffs, such as Montana, could have similar issues. Again, know your options before you travel. (Some of our providers drive to their assignments, and driving offers choices that flying doesn’t, so the method of travel is another variable to consider as you make your food plan.)
Don’t assume that you’ll find all your favorite foods or brands in small communities. Many of the small towns and villages where providers work are fortunate to have one grocery store.
Location, Lodging, and Food For Your Rural Locum Tenens Assignment
For longer assignments, providers are typically housed in an apartment. Occasionally, especially if the assignment is relatively short, the accommodation might be in a hotel, or even a private room within the healthcare facility. In these two scenarios cooking facilities might be a microwave, fridge, and coffee maker.
If you’re housed in an apartment, you can generally expect to have a full kitchen. You likely will not have a dishwasher, but you would typically expect a full-size fridge/freezer, microwave, stove/oven, basic dishes and cookware, coffee maker, utensils, and at least minimum stock of dishwashing detergent, toilet paper, and paper towels.
When you’re living in locums housing, whether it’s for a week or a month, you’re living in a shared space, even though the sharing is sequential. Providers often leave items that they haven’t used up in the kitchen, so you may fall heir to random products such as spices, condiments, beverages, canned goods, etc. (It’s a good idea to check expiration dates if you choose to use something that’s been left behind.) Other times you’ll be lucky to find salt and pepper and coffee filters already on hand.
Whether you feel comfortable using anything that’s been donated to the common kitchen is up to you. But don’t be surprised to open a cabinet door and find a collection of pantry items already in residence, or a few jars on the door of the fridge. You may find yourself doing the same when you’re ready to leave, and that’s typically fine. Just be courteous and don’t leave actual leftovers, or any food that wouldn’t be appropriate to share with the next person staying in the space.
So many of your choices will depend on location and lodging, and the length of time you’re on assignment. Once you know what to expect you can think about the other variables. Planning is key to efficient food prep and satisfying meals.
What Food To Bring For Your Rural Locum Tenens Assignment
While kitchens are equipped with the basics, depending on how much you enjoy cooking or your specific food choices, you may want to bring some items that you’ll appreciate, especially if you’re going to be spending weeks or months in your temporary space.
You may want to bring a favorite knife or a selection of spices and seasonings. You might even have a small appliance that you choose to bring along. Many people use small personal-size blenders to make smoothies or protein shakes. You may have a favorite all-purpose skillet or other items that make your meal prep easier. This is the type of convenience that you might consider bringing if your luggage space allows.
When you’re working and living in unfamiliar settings, the last thing you need is a struggle with food and meal prep. If you enjoy cooking, you may find this just another element of your adventure, but regardless, you should be prepared for the setting you’re stepping into.
Flying with Food For Your Rural Locum Tenens Assignment
If you’re taking food items on a flight in your carry-on luggage, check in advance to know what TSA will allow. Once I tried to take a jar of organic gourmet peanut butter in my carry-on and it was confiscated when I went through security at the airport. (Let me just say, I mourned that jar of peanut butter!)
But I’ve successfully taken fruit, pastries, vegetables, fresh herbs, and several other foods through TSA without any problem. You can’t bring liquids through airport security, and since I lost my peanut butter, I’ve avoided bringing any item with a similar texture. But most foods are ok to carry on. And if you want to take gourmet peanut butter with you, just put it in your checked luggage!
You can take food in your luggage, but you’ll want to consider your weight limitations and the type of food. Obviously, liquids or highly perishable items won’t be good choices, but you can take fresh fruit and vegetables (just nothing too delicate), hard cheeses, cereal, rice, or other pantry items, especially if groceries in your work location are expensive. Plan to buy perishables or items that won’t pack well when you arrive.
If you follow a strict diet, you might even want to prep your meals and freeze them to take with you. You can check ice chests as luggage on commercial flights, and I’ve known people to do this. Again, keep in mind weight limitations, especially if you’re going to ultimately be taking a bush plane or seaplane to your destination. (It’s probably good to have a backup plan in case your ice chest gets lost as you travel.)
Shipping Food For Your Rural Locum Tenens Assignment
For communities in Alaska that can only be reached by bush plane or seaplane, you may need to ship your food in. Some services do this. If you’re heading out for an assignment with WMS, ask your account executive or operations staff member about this option. Typically, bush planes and seaplanes have weight restrictions for luggage, so you won’t be able to pack much food to take with you and the only options will be shipping in or buying locally. If you’re advised to shop on the way in or ship your food in, there’s a reason, whether it’s the cost of buying locally, limited options, or both.
For some assignments, the position description suggests that providers will want to shop in a larger city while en route to their destination, buying groceries in Anchorage, Fairbanks, or another hub, and shipping their food out to their village destination. (You can read more about packing food for Alaska assignments, in specific in our article “The Ultimate Alaska Packing List for Locum Tenens Healthcare Providers.”
Before heading out for an assignment, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you follow a special diet (gluten-free, Keto, vegan, dairy-free, etc.?)
- Do you have food allergies to plan around?
- Do you have a menu rotation of easy meals you can adjust in case you need to substitute ingredients?
- Do you usually buy organic produce or other specialty grocery items, and what will you substitute if your regular choices aren’t available?
- Do you like wine with dinner or specialty coffee or tea?
If you answered “yes” to any of the questions, here are a few tips to help you be prepared before you arrive.
- Create a menu with at least a few days of meals planned. Know what ingredients you’ll need for each recipe so if you’re shopping as you travel to your work location, you already have a list in hand.
- Choose basic recipes that don’t require a long list of ingredients or specialty ingredients that may be hard to find in a small market or use special kitchen equipment to prepare.
- Identify spices or herbs you want to take with you. Spices and seasonings can be extremely expensive in small markets (or sometimes unavailable) and might be the best secret ingredient to tuck in your luggage.
- You might consider bringing protein shake mixes, easy snacks like granola bars, popcorn, etc. with you to supplement what you buy locally.
- Don’t forget to include nutrition supplements if you take these.
- If you’re bringing a pet, be sure to plan for your pet’s food as well.
Food at the Community You’re Serving
You may be lucky enough to be on assignment in a community that offers great fishing, or hunting, and to be there in the season for these events. If you are, you may be able to buy fish or game from local residents or even be invited out to hunt or fish on a day off. Local fish or game could be a great
way to supplement your food options and give you a real taste of the area! I’ve learned to clean shrimp, crab, and oysters, how to cook salmon and halibut in multiple ways, and I pick berries in the summer; all skills learned while living in Alaskan communities and enjoying the cuisine of the region!
When you’re experiencing a community and healthcare setting as a locum tenens provider, you’ll inevitably be around for a holiday or birthday, or special celebration of some kind. If you’re invited to take part in a potluck or any type of food event, of course, the choice to participate is up to the individual. It’s a wonderful way to get better acquainted with staff, to try local foods, to be enfolded in the community, even in a small way. Join in if work permits and you’re comfortable taking part!
Have Experience with Food on Assignments? Let us know!
We love hearing from providers who have interesting stories and adventures to share! If you’ve got a food story to share, please let us know. Maybe you experienced an amazing local festival, or you finally learned to cook fresh salmon. Send us a recipe (and photos if you like) and you might find yourself featured on our social media!
If you have suggestions for providers coming after you as to how to best manage grocery shopping, etc., on assignment, we appreciate insights and guidance. We’ll always pass on wisdom gained from experience!
Good luck with your culinary adventures while on assignment! It’s just another way to have fun when you’re working for Wilderness Medical Staffing!